Back to Life Time!

Back to Life Time!

Photo by John Sullivan in the Maasai Mara
Rains in Africa bring rebirth unlike anywhere else on earth. I don’t mean things just start to grow again. I mean dead things come back to life!

Admittedly, most of these creatures are just fooling us to believe they’ve returned from the dark side. They aren’t really the same thing, but the children of things that died when the rains last ended. But there are a few true miracle creatures that defy all sorts of normal zoological physiologies.

They’re called “mudfish” and … well, for obvious reasons. See the main picture above, although that was taken at the end rather than beginning of the rains. It’s easier to find them like this, captured in wiggling pods as they tried to avoid the marabou stork’s gullet, but before they’ve hibernated for the dry season.

The narrow picture to the right is one of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s several priceless ancient African sculptures praising mudfish. This one is titled, “Rattle Staff: Hand Holding Mudfish (Ukhurhe)” and can be found in gallery 352. And it’s now — at this time of the year — that they reemerge.

They’re an important but small family of earth’s creatures widely referred to as lungfish. Up to 6′ long, they’re mean predators: They can bite off your finger. They breathe with lungs, not gills. They can walk on land. They’ve been on earth for 100 million years and are the direct descendents of the 450 million year old fossil creatures that first walked fish out of the sea.

AND they can live 100 years BUT they regularly die just as many years as they live.

Say what?

At the end of every dry season, they wallow as in the picture above, frantically trying to discourage predators as their home evaporates. Then one night, they wrap themselves in a self-made mucous cocoon and become desiccated with the mud. Almost all their bodily functions cease.

Unlike bears or caterpillars changing or a 17-year grubbly little cicada in a shell under my oak tree, these creatures actually come to a near complete halt.

Until the rains return.

Those of us who know where to look after the first big rains … we’ll find them! They don’t emerge necessarily altogether like they are above. Usually the water has to be a bit deeper to break their hard cocoon and release them, and at that point they’re wholly under water.

A whole bunch of things in Africa actually behaves like mudfish: Toads, true frogs, salamanders, and dozens of insects and smaller carp-like fish are born, live their cycle, mate and die in a single pool of water.

That’s the difference: those creatures die leaving eggs to carry on their species. But mudfish don’t die, exactly. They, well, come back!

This rebirthing quality gave mudfish a divine character with early Africans. Particularly in the more developed early west African societies mudfish was often considered sacred and often the guardian or guide for a royal personage from this world to the next.

In Benin it was associated with Oba, the king, who had achieved the power of life and death of his subjects because of his divine association with the mudfish. In later more modern times, mudfish were prayed to, and petitioned especially for acts of healing.

In the northern west we often chastise equatorial and sunbird people for not appreciating the “change of seasons.” Well, there’s no snow on the equator, but in the wildernesses still preserved where dams, irrigation and boreholes have not disrupted the normal seasons of rain, change here can be much more dramatic than a leaf turning red.

The meaning of water falling from the sky is much more profound. Things come back to life!